Bonhoeffer for Today

This is a guest post from Dr. Steve Bezner, in which he graciously responded to questions about his study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Baylor University and what Bonhoeffer has to say to believers today. Steve is the Senior Pastor at Houston Northwest Church in Houston, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @Bezner

1. Can you tell us about your educational journey and current ministry role?

“I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Bible (minor in Leadership Studies) at Hardin-Simmons University in 1997 and a Master of Arts in Religion (minor in English) at Hardin-Simmons in 1999. I completed my Doctor of Philosophy in Religion at Baylor University in 2008. I began serving in churches at the age of 19. My sophomore year in college I began leading the University Ministry of my local church and spent the Summer working with junior high and high school students at my home church.

When I graduated with my BA, I considered moving out of state for seminary, but my home church asked me to serve as an interim Student Pastor while the current Student Pastor and his family navigated some health issues. During that stint, I started dating Joy—who would eventually become my wife. Since she was a student at Hardin-Simmons, I decided to stay in West Texas and serve as a pastor near her (best decision I ever made). When we had both graduated and gotten married, we moved to Waco so I could begin my PhD. At the time I thought I would spend my career as a professor, but after a year of full-time school, I realized my heart was with the local church. The Lord called us to a small town, and I served there for ten years. We planted a church in 2010 and loved that experience when, surprisingly, Houston Northwest called me to be their pastor. That was five and a half years ago, and we love this church and the city.”

2. How did you arrive at researching Bonhoeffer for your dissertation?

“My senior year of high school my Student Pastor decided to do a book study with us in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I was immediately hooked. It was my first experience of reading a theological text in its entirety, and it amazed me that someone had taken the time to think so intentionally about the Scriptures and the way of Jesus. From that time on, Bonhoeffer became an object of study and passion. I took a seminar in 20th century theology during my Master’s program and used that opportunity to dive deeper into the Bonhoeffer corpus, at which point I decided to write my Master’s thesis on Bonhoeffer’s concept ‘world come of age.’ I enjoyed it a great deal and began searching for Bonhoeffer scholars in the United States where I could write my dissertation on Bonhoeffer and do a ‘deep dive’ into understanding his theology. I was surprised to discover that a world-class Bonhoeffer scholar—Barry Harvey—was just a few hours away at Baylor. I believe I took every seminar with Dr. Harvey that he offered, and he agreed to by my dissertation advisor. I wanted to see if there was a connecting idea within Bonhoeffer’s theology, as most of his works are occasional, so that became the focus of my dissertation. (You can read it here, if you’re bored.)”

3. Are there any misperceptions/confusion people have about Bonhoeffer today?

“Absolutely. I think the biggest problem in Bonhoeffer studies is the propensity to elevate his death so highly that one is not able to clearly read his life—and his life was quite extraordinary. Bonhoeffer’s theology was driven by an absolute commitment to a church that operated in the Way of Jesus. Over the years some interpreters have focused on his Christology (John Howard Yoder’s AAR paper comes to mind) *or* his ecclesiology (Clifford Green chose to use the term “sociality”). They did so because Bonhoeffer wrote distinct works that focused on each of those doctrines, but if one reads those works in their entirety, one will discover that the church, for Bonhoeffer, is the manifestation of the Way of Jesus. In other words, one cannot truly live the Way of Jesus in a way that encounters the culture unless one does so in the context of a healthy church.

This is why Bonhoeffer struggled between the church and the academy his entire life. My dissertation was an attempt (yes, I would do things differently now) to demonstrate that Bonhoeffer’s theological corpus was not a disjointed set of occasional texts, but was rather a project of theological interpretation that ran throughout his life—through the lens of a church faithfully and effectively living the Jesus Way.”

4. How does Bonhoeffer’s vision/theology apply directly to the local church?

“I thought you’d never ask! Bonhoeffer’s theology is a consistent refusal to allow theory alone to be sufficient for the work known as theology. Bonhoeffer insists that theology must be something that can be acted upon in the context of the church, and any attempt to do otherwise leads to a false picture of what theology ought to be. It is important to remember that Bonhoeffer grabbed Barth’s theological approach of “returning to the Bible” (albeit from a neo-orthodox perspective) at the time when Harnack and Seeberg were pursing the classical liberal approach to theology. Bonhoeffer’s dive into Scripture only became more serious and more Baptist, to be honest, from there. As Bonhoeffer discovered the black church in Harlem during his first American visit, along with the Anabaptist thought of Jean Lassere and the Bruderhof community, he became more and more insistent on living the Way of Jesus within the community of the church and interpreting the world through that lens.

Consequently, as the Nazis gained influence in WWII Germany, Bonhoeffer was drawn to theological training for Confessing Church pastors. He recognized that the state church had been compromised. It no longer confessed Jesus, but rather the Fuhrer. It no longer practiced the Way of Jesus, but the way of nationalism. Bonhoeffer wanted to preserve the faithful church his theological work had been describing to that point, so he founded the Zingst/Finkenwalde seminary. In the end, Bonhoeffer was killed because he refused to declare the way of Hitler as ultimate. His entire theological project and building of the church maintained that consistent trajectory over the course of his life. Yes, it evolved in approach and method, but it remained a faithful search for the right way to do theology and build a church—using the Scripture as its fountainhead.”

5. Where should someone interested in reading Bonhoeffer begin?

“I would recommend the text that started me down the Bonhoeffer road—The Cost of Discipleship. It is an extended reading of the Gospel of Matthew and examining the Gospel’s implications for believers in a world that is fascinated with political power. A good second read is Life Together, as it describes the seminary he built on his path to help build this elusive church. I also happen to love his compiled Christology lectures—Christ the Center—and his instructions on how to pray the Psalms—The Prayerbook of the Bible.”

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